Fear and Loathing in design

Kit Oliynyk
Jun 20, 2016 · 7 min read

I wasn’t always a designer. I spent the first few years of my professional career as a software developer, making Windows apps in Borland Delphi (yes, I’m deeply ashamed of that to this day). At some point, I found that I was spending more time in Photoshop making pretty button icons or sketching the layout than actually coding anything. Someone told me I should probably become a designer, and just like that, my career path changed.

It was very scary. I was afraid that my developer friends were going to hate me (they totally did). I was scared of losing all my professional skills (not that there were that many). I was terrified of starting all over and learning new things (turns out I was lazy, not scared). I was afraid no one would give me a job because I couldn’t do anything.

So I did the only thing possible in such circumstances: half-assed my portfolio with a bunch of fake projects, bribed a receptionist with a bottle of champagne, and lied my guts out on the interview. The job was mine.

I figured they’d kick me out pretty soon, so I needed to act fast. I bought Illustrator for Dummies so that I could at least launch the damn thing, interrogated other designers on a daily basis, and when they didn’t want to help anymore, I crept over their shoulders. I taunted my art director with made-up “hot trends” so he would launch into long rants about the real laws of design. He fired me just three months after I finally overstepped the boundaries. Yeah, I said I liked Comic Sans.

Fight or Flight

At this point, the story is supposed to end with something like, “And that’s how I conquered my fears, became a design professional, and lived happily ever after.” But I didn’t. For the next fifteen years I continued to be scared of all of those things: being just an ordinary designer, changing into someone else, and not being accepted afterward. Hey, I’m scared shitless right now, writing this article. But I’ve learned something.

It’s perfectly normal to be scared. The trick is to keep going.

Fear triggers the famous “fight or flight” response, one of the most fundamental things in animal physiology. Raccoons always choose fight over flight, even when it means fighting a five-ton truck. The thing about career development is that you kind of have to be a raccoon — if you flee from your fears, you won’t get anywhere. Hopefully, we can be better than raccoons at our careers and not get hit by a truck in the process.

Fear of Disapproval

Designers are afraid of many things. Cocky designers are secretly scared of being called impostors. Shy designers are terrified of exposing themselves to success. And we’re all afraid of sucking at what we do.

Most of us are convinced we’re in over our heads, but those heads are full of ego and pride. We’re scared someone won’t like the pretty picture we drew, but keep convincing ourselves we don’t just make pretty pictures anymore. There’s a face in our mirrors, and most mornings we tell it, “Hey, you’re awesome, you’re creative, you’re a great designer, really!” But the face in the mirror frowns and answers, “No, I suck.” This is the face of our fear.

We crave constant approval and acceptance of our work, because if we aren’t getting it, that means the voice in the mirror was right. Designers are suckers for approval. Designers can spend hours polishing a Dribbble shot before publishing — quite often more time than it took to design the thing itself. We call it perfectionism, but hey, the truth is we’re merely trying to minimize the risk of disapproval.

We’re so afraid of being exposed as amateurs that we hear disapproval in every comment. Mike Monteiro’s favorite example of this is the “blue button”–when a client asks why the button is blue, a designer’s emergency answer is “I can change it.” A designer is getting paid to be skilled and confident, not defensive. And even when we’re wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn and get inspired, not to get mad.

Fear leads to shame: the more afraid we are, the less confidently we present ourselves. When we get a chance to get into the arena and prove ourselves worthy, we get that much more scared.

Fear of Spotlight

When I landed one of my first jobs as an art director, I found an amazing visual designer on my team. She had impeccable taste and a great eye for colors and composition. She could lay out 20 pages of a fashion magazine within minutes. And after designing something breathtaking, as effortlessly as ever, she’d sit on the couch and complain how becoming a good designer just “wasn’t in the cards” for her. She had been a junior designer for seven years, turning down promotions because she didn’t feel worthy.

I was mad at her. Hell, I still am; burying one’s incredible talent should be considered a crime. I dragged her, kicking and screaming, into a deputy art director position. She hardly spoke to me for a month, and tried sabotaging her work by sticking to production projects. Then one day I found her looking in that metaphorical mirror and smiling at what she’d become. Two years later, as I was leaving the company, she came to me and asked for my job. She wasn’t afraid anymore.

Designers often approach asking for a promotion or merely expanding their skill set as a leap of faith. Taking a leap of faith doesn’t have to be scary. As a matter of fact, quite often it’s not a leap, it’s a walk on the beach. Remember Indiana Jones’ leap of faith on the invisible bridge? It’s scary, of course, to step into the abyss, but once you throw some sand on it, it’s just a bridge.

Quite often the fear of making a decision is the fear of the unknown.

We’re afraid to go after the opportunity because we don’t know what’s going to happen. The best way of fighting the unknown is knowing. Ask around — maybe someone has already run with it and succeeded? Confront your risks — what’s the worst thing that could happen? And honestly, how likely is that going to happen? Are you really gonna get fired for trying out that new design style?

Fear of Losing Your Former Self

Brene Brown says that perfectionism is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance. Many designers are perfectionists; I used to be a raging perfectionist myself (that’s a lie, I still am). You make something good, then spend several more hours to make it even better, and everyone calls you a great designer. Feels good, doesn’t it?

But after all these years I don’t think it’s just about approval. We become obsessed with doing the same type of work over and over again because we’re secretly afraid to try something we don’t know and become vulnerable. It’s much easier to see ourselves as “experts” in something we’ve done for quite some time than to expose ourselves to something new.

We develop an image of ourselves, a tagline to put on our LinkedIn page, a story to tell at a job interview. Coincidentally, this story becomes our definition of success: if we’re true to the story, we look cool in our own eyes. But stagnancy can hardly stay successful. We need to keep changing and redefining our success story in order to grow as professionals.

I’ve had a junior designer on my team — young, brilliant, passionate for visual design. I was tired, unhappy and my success story was all wrong. As a visual designer, she saw her success in making things beautiful. As a creative director, I saw my success in making things perfectly consistent. She kept designing things her way; I kept pushing her in the other direction, desperate to get the quality and consistency I wanted as soon as possible. She ended up switching teams because of the pressure, and I’m still deeply sorry for that.

I didn’t realize back then that perfectionism got in the way of my own development; I could become a better person and a better designer if I rethought what makes me successful. What I’ve learned is that pushing too hard is not the only way to get quality. Often it’s not even the fastest one. We define our own success stories: what we’ll push for is up to us. And as it turns out, quite often we cling onto our former selves for far too long.

We’re perfectionists because we’re afraid to move on.

Getting Past Fear

Ok, so what can we do with this mess? How might we control those fears, making sure that we’re not getting frozen in place or run away from what we’re afraid of?

  1. Get inspired. Translate disapproval into opportunities, learn new things and get better at what you do.
  2. Manage risks. Not every decision has to be scary, do your research and get on with it.
  3. Humble yourself. Get ego out of the way and make sure you’re up to date with what makes you successful.

And finally, accept vulnerability. It’s perfectly normal to be afraid, as long as you keep moving on.


Thanks for reading. Tweet me @fiorine if you have any questions, I’d love to chat.

Illustrations by Mattis Dovier.

One Design Community

Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

Kit Oliynyk

Written by

Product design, design culture, and design ethics at large enterprise scale.

One Design Community

Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

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